From burning out to running joyfully
(All photos from Bear 100 by Mike McMonagle)
By Henry Howard
Becca Windell was first inspired to run by her grandfather. During visits to her grandparents in Youngstown, Ohio, Windell and her sister shared a room where he kept all his running clothes.
“I was totally enamored by his neon Frank Shorter track suit, the stack of tattered cotton race shirts, and striped sweatbands,” Windell recalls. “Around 8 years old I asked if I could join him on one of his neighborhood jogs and tagged along for a whole mile. I was totally wrecked by the time we got back to the house and watched longingly as he dropped me off and continued down the road to finish his standard 5K loop.”
That lit a spark. After the trip, Windell started training with her mom. The goal: run the whole loop with grandpa next time.
“I was pretty hooked after that and by the time I was 10, I was racing him on his loop when we visited!”
Windell, who recently won the Bear 100, was fueled by that experience to explore, feel the wind in her hair and embrace endurance events.
However, in her teenage years, she replaced running with cycling.
“It was fueled by a strong desire to explore the greater Chicagoland area, get to school more quickly and because it made me feel so alive,” she explains. “Bike exploration eventually turned into bike racing. While it wasn't all bad, for the most part, as I found success in bike racing I lost focus on the simple joy that fresh air and exertion brought me, focusing on unproductive things like results, competitors, my weight, and whether or not I was good enough.”
At 24 and feeling burned out, Windell quit cycling.
“I grappled with competitive sport for many years, and instead focused on resurfacing my initial love of sport,” she says. “That started with the adoption of the best little trail dog in the world - Josey - a now 11-year-old super mutt that still runs like an absolute champ and drops her 5-year-old sister, Riley, without batting an eye.”
Finding joy with Josey
Josey and Windell discovered trail running together. That led to her first 50K races in 2013-2014. But the time was not right for racing. She found herself slipping back into old patterns.
“While I absolutely adored the races and challenge, I loved trail running too much to have the sport destroyed,” she says. “So I quit racing and just ran casually, focusing on my career. in the past couple of years however, I've been thrilled to return to competition, but this time focusing on the amazing trail running community and a deep appreciation for what bodies are capable of.”
It's the supportive trail community that keeps Windell engaged.
“Everyone is so encouraging and supportive,” she says. “I've had a great experience with everyone I've met racing on the trails the past couple of years, making it impossible not to adore the trail running breed. In addition to fellow competitors and training partners, the fact that so many people come out to support trail events — everyone from volunteers manning aid stations to your crew handing off bottles and calories — is really special.”
As an example, Windell cites a race experience with Ladia Albertson-Junkans at a half marathon in Seattle. (See previous interview story with Albertson-Junkans.)
“The gun went off and the field took off fast,” Windell recalls. “A mile or so into the race I found myself at the front with Ladia Albertson-Junkans, a total badass speedster and legend. We hadn't met prior to the race. But there we were, going somewhere close to mach speed up and down technical trails, having the most amazing conversation about life. It just made my heart sing!”
In her corner
Windell was wary about repeating the cycle from her bicycling days. Still, she loved ultra running and wanted to see where it would take her. She needed the right coach for her.
And that led her to David Roche, who is also my coach.
“I can't remember the first place I came across David's name, but I learned about the book he and Megan authored, ‘The Happy Runner,’” she says. “If I was ever going to follow a training plan again, that would be a good place to start. I read the book and it resonated with me. David's focus on mental health, self love, belief, and eating enough - all while also providing the daily running prescription to shoot your shot in running - was just magic. It made me believe that maybe I could compete and explore my athletic potential once more.”
They have been coach and client for two years now.
“They've quite honestly been the happiest of my life,” she says. “We are focused on my running dreams, but I never feel like that's the reason we are doing any of the training. The focus is being the best person you can be, with running playing a strong supporting role.”
One only needs to scan Windell’s race photos — even the 100-miler — to see a smiling, cheerful runner.
“Dude, running that long of a distance is both so ridiculous and so fun that it’s simply impossible not to smile!” she says. “I've always been a pretty smiley athlete, even when I'm suffering, but it’s also 100 percent inspired and supported by David. I can hardly express how grateful I am to have David in my life and his endless positivity helps me keep smiling at the forefront and as I go through any race. It's a total privilege to be able to run long and fast and give your all. I think part of the reason I'm always smiling is because I'm so astonished by what human bodies care capable of!”
When not running, Windell is the development director of a wildlife conservation non-profit organization called Home Range. She co-founded Home Range with friends and colleagues, Anna Machowicz and Carmen Vanbianchi.
They are putting together a “Home Range Run” in Washington's Methow Valley where participants will run the distance that various critters travel throughout their territories. Details are still being worked out and proceeds will benefit Home Range.
An easy decision
As a wildlife biologist, the Bear 100 was an easy selection for Windell’s first race at that distance.
“I was totally inspired to run the Bear 100 not only because I heard it was an incredible course and race vibe, but also because it was wildlife themed,” she says. “Bears in particular hold a very special place in my heart, as my first field experience was working on a black bear study in Durango, Colorado. My time there was really special.”
The sub-24 hour belt buckle was a motivator, too.
“A wolverine belt buckle was probably more motivating than I should admit - wolverines are just about the most badass animal out there!” she says. “My friends at the Cascades Wolverine Project have a great tag line that they are the "spirit animal of the back country" — so it was pretty fun to go after that.”
As a wildlife biologist, she recognizes movement is both critical to survival and shapes the way that all animals (humans included) interact with the world.
“This understanding has allowed me to lean into prioritizing running as a vital part of everyday life and made me excited to explore the limits of my movement potential,” she explains. “In short, a wildlife-inspired 100-miler was extra special to me and I was thrilled to see that 100 miles are not only possible, but a distance that is totally doable and can be iterated on in the future.”
Going into the Bear 100, she was prepared for dark times, puke and rallies.
“To be honest I was looking forward to this in a way — curious what it would feel like,” she says. “But somehow I avoided all of this! I credit this to having three of the best pacers/crew I could ask for — my husband Simon and two of my best friends, Jenn and Hannah, — who all helped me keep my spirits high the whole time. I got kind of sleepy at the end and was really looking forward to sitting down when I reached the finish line, but that was about all the adversity I faced. Will have to wait for next time I guess!”
Name: Becca Windell
Hometown: Mazama, Wash.
Number of years running: “Recently two, adult life 10, but in one way or another my whole life.”
How many miles a week do you typically run: About 70.
Point of pride: My dog, Josey.
Favorite race distance: “Hard to say – coin toss between technical 50K with lots of vert but this 100 has me hooked and can't wait to do more.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pesto gnocchi
Favorite piece of gear: WHOOP
Who inspires you: My dog, Josey.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Reckless by the Steeldrivers
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “ALL DAY,” – Schmidt from New Girl.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: www.beccawindell.com
• Instagram: @beccawindell
• Twitter: @beccawindell